England: a nation of tree-huggers?

Government plans to sell off swathes of woodland have been greeted with howls of protest. Sentimental? Or a measure of our love for trees and forests?

‘O if we but knew what we do/ When we delve or hew—Hack and rack the growing green!’

This was the lament of Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins seeing poplar trees felled in the 1870s.

In our own era, most Britons live in cities and often get little chance to explore the forests. But the deep love for trees expressed in Hopkins’ verse seems to have endured.

This week protests against government plans to sell off some of England’s publicly owned woodland have grown, after nearly half a million people objected, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate.

A poll found that 84% of people were opposed to the sale, which would let private companies buy commercial logging areas and other woodlands while charities would take over what have been dubbed ‘heritage forests’ like the New Forest and the Forest of Dean.

Ministers have struggled to justify their plan, dismayed at the passions that have been unleashed. Yesterday David Cameron, the prime minister, appeared to be signalling a rethink when he told MPs he was ‘listening to all the arguments.’

If 90% of us are urban dwellers, why do we care so much?

Perhaps the children’s stories the English have grown up with, like Winnie the Pooh and Wind in the Willows, both set in the woods, give us a romantic view of our countryside. We like to think of it as William Blake’s ‘green and pleasant land,’ as his famous poem Jerusalem has it.

The woods link us to an idealized past: folk heroes, like Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest, have often lived among the trees, where life seems simpler. And the long lives of individual trees give us a different perspective on history: some of the UK’s ancient trees, like the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, could be as much as 5,000 years old.

What’s at stake?

Hard-headed policymakers in the department of the environment argue that objections to the forestry sell-off are rooted in this sentimental version of what it means to be British.

But biologists say our attachment to trees is based on a good, if instinctual, understanding of their importance for maintaining an environment that will sustain all life forms, including our own.

‘The only half-way sane approach if we want this world to remain habitable, is to approach it humbly,’ writes Colin Tudge, the biologist and writer. ‘Trees teach humility.’

You Decide

  1. Are national treasures better protected by state ownership, or being run by private operators or charities?
  2. Which makes you happy – town or country?


  1. In JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, the Ents are creatures who have become like trees after a long time ‘herding’ them. Draw or describe your idea of an Ent or another creature, real or fictional, that lives in or near trees.
  2. Research which trees are native to the UK and which imports have been planted widely. Make a map, showing which are useful for timber sales.

Some People Say...

“Natural resources like trees are there for humans to use, nothing more”

What do you think?

Q & A

How much forest is there in the UK?
11.8% of the UK is covered by forest, more than at any time since the mid 18th century. In 1919 it was only 4%.
And how much does the public own?
About 28%, which includes commercial woodland as well as nature reserves. Ministers want the Forestry Commission to sell these assets.
Should we care who looks after our trees?
Ministers say no, the sale will raise £100m, and businesspeople will manage the timber business better anyway. But charities say they can’t afford to run ‘heritage forests’.
Do the trees have an opinion?
Well, many writers have ascribed them human characteristics. One writer described a group of ancient oaks as ‘deformed, hunchbacked, men that stand awaiting and watching century after century.’

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.